Iconic, a word that is bandied about way too casually, does not begin to sum up what Lata Mangeshkar was. She was, and is, India’s voice. Undisputed, untrammelled, unmatched, she held us in thrall for over seven decades. Does her passing, then, mark the end of an era? Well, time cannot imprison her. It loses meaning in the context of her peerless, transcendental singing career. It was never about how long, but how much. Lata Mangeshkar, who died in Mumbai Sunday morning, has mattered to us all–and that is beyond measure.
Lata Mangeshkar will live forever because she is ingrained in our souls and beings in a way that few recording artistes have ever been anywhere in the world. She is in the air we breathe, the thoughts we have, the tunes we hum, and the emotions we feel. A singer of unparalleled brilliance, she not only defined an entire epoch in Indian film music, but also influenced the contours that the big-screen heroine assumed in the golden age of Hindi cinema – from the early 1950s to the late 1960s.
Her refined, mellifluous voice defined femininity and placed it within a free India’s evolving register in which freedom and restraint went hand in hand. Music directors rarely thought of her when they looked for a singer for a song on the lips of the vamp or the nautch girl (barring famously for Pakeezah’s Meena Kumari). It was leading ladies, virtuous and circumspect, that she primarily sang for.
That is not to say that Lata wasn’t versatile. Her perfect pitching and musicality not only enabled her to be unfailingly emotionally resonant but it also allowed her to be anything that she needed to be – from the chaste to the coquettish, the innocent to the spicy. She sang pathos-tinged ditties, lively romantic numbers, delectable ghazals, devotion-dripping bhajans and semi-classical compositions with equal felicity. She sang in virtually every Indian language.
Lata was much more than the numerous awards and accolades that she accumulated over the years. Stamping herself on the collective consciousness of the nation, she changed playback singing forever with her technically flawless voice and her magical delivery of a range of emotions and the most exquisite musical sleights.
She lent her voice to every major actress who graced Hindi cinema over a period of seven decades, from Nargis, Waheeda Rehman and Meena Kumari to Madhuri Dixit, Preity Zinta and Kareena Kapoor. She was the go-to singer for three generations of music directors, from Naushad, Vasant Desai, C. Ramchandra, Sachin Dev Burman and Salil Chowdhury to Rahul Dev Burman (with whom she had as fruitful an association as her younger sister Asha Bhosle), Bappi Lahiri, Anu Malik, Anand-Milind, Jatin-Lalit and AR Rahman.
Lata’s phenomenal longevity is best illustrated by the fact that she sang for Anand and Milind’s father Chitragupt. She also sang for Anu Malik and Rajesh Roshan and their respective fathers, Sardar Malik and Roshan. But with age catching up, she had withdrawn from active playback singing a decade and a half back. She never, however, went out of vogue because she was, and will always be, the gold standard.
Mentored in the 1940s by Master Vinayak and, after his demise, by Ghulam Haider. The latter gave Lata her first Hindi film song, Ab darne ki koi baat nahi, a duet with Mukesh for the film Majboor, starring Kishore Kumar and Nalini Jaywant. Haider also introduced the singer to film producer Sashadhar Mukherjee, founder of Filmistan, when he broke away from Bombay Talkies and went independent in the company of Ashok Kumar, Rai Bahadur Chunilal Kohli (composer Madan Mohan’s father) and Gyan Mukherjee.
She recorded Uthaye jaa unke sitam for Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949) under the baton of composer Naushad and followed it up with the career-defining Aayega aanewala aayega the same year for the Bombay Talkies film Mahal for which Naushad’s mentor Khemchand Prakash composed the music. Her ascent thereafter was quick and uninterrupted.
Hindi cinema’s first crop of female playback singing – the likes of Shamshad Begum, Zohrabai Ambalewali, Rajkumari, Amirbai Karnataki and Suraiya (herself a successful actress), whose styles were rooted in either the classical music gharanas or the kotha traditions – failed to keep up with Lata as she went from strength to strength with a voice that was thinner, softer and marked a timbre and tone perfectly suited to the modernising recording studios in the 1960s.
Her breakthroughs in the late 1940s through the early 1950s rode on the fact that she firmly ensconced herself in the orbit of a slew of filmmaker-music director teams that were to dominate Hindi cinema for the next two to three decades.
Filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Kamal Amrohi and B R Chopra, among many others, formed enduring creative partnerships with composers Shankar-Jaikishan, SD Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Roshan, and Madan Mohan. And Lata Mangeshkar quickly became an integral part of the musical universe they built with hit after hit.
She was the first choice when B R Chopra made his first film (Afsana), Raj Kapoor delivered his first major hit (Barsaat), Kamal Amrohi made his directorial debut (Mahal) and Bimal Roy mounted his first home production (Do Bigha Zamin). Their careers took off and Lata Mangeshkar, as able a musical ally that they could have hoped for, soared and took their cinema along with her.
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